Spirit of hospitality in Azerbaijan

Caucasian hospitality is famous worldwide and during your stay in Azerbaijan you will have plenty of opportunities to experience it for yourself. You might, for example, get invited to someone’s house for ”tea”. However, if you think that you’ll just spend a couple of hours drinking tea with your host  – think again. Azeri people are very modest and they will never admit that they had just spent a day preparing for you a small feast of delicious, home-made, traditional local dishes. You’d better show up hungry!

gift

Before the visit

Although it’s not expected, it is always in good taste to bring some gifts for the host. A small bunch of flowers for the lady, sweets for children and a bottle of liquor for the head of the family will do just fine. However, if due to religious reasons alcohol is out of the question, sweets  are a prefect alternative. Azeris love to have their tea with a candy or two so you cannot go wrong. Finally, make sure your outfit is appropriate and tidy as local people pay a lot of attention to appearance. You will find more information about Azerbaijani customs here.

The meal

Appetizers

A typical meal consists of appetizers, main courses, tea and sweets. Before the main dishes are served, the table is usually set with plenty of appetizers – fresh herbs (chives, dill, parsley, coriander etc.) and vegetable (mainly tomato and cucumber), mixed pickles and salads, cheese, olives, aubergine with nuts etc. They all look delicious but try not to indulge in them too much as they’ll be followed by a huge meal!

Main courses

The choice of main dishes varies. The hostess may prepare vine leaves, aubergine, tomatoes and/or peppers stuffed with rice, meat and spices (dolma), fish filled with nuts and served with pomegranate sauce,  lamb stew, delicious kebab or plov, which is considered a particular delicacy and served only on special occasions. Sometimes the main courses are preceded by a soup – dushbere with tiny dumplings on a cold day or dovga (yogurt soup) in the summer. If you feel full, leave some food on your plate as otherwise it’ll get refilled instantly. More information about traditional Azerbaijani food you will find here.

Table

Image: thetravelmanor.com

Tea

It is common to mix two types of tea – black and thyme. Drink will always be accompanied by dry fruit, varene, cookies or cake. To read more about the great tea drinking tradition in Azerbaijan, visit our past post.

After the meal

Once the meal is finished – don’t leave immediately. After the feast you will need to rest a while anyway, and it’ll also be a good chance to finally speak to the ladies of the house, who most likely spent the whole evening preparing and serving food. Also, if you’re lucky, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise of traditional singing and dancing.

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Khash – the Caucasian cure for a late night out

khash news.az

Khash. Image: news.az

Peruvians have their cuy colorado, Brits have black pudding, Japanese have shirako and people of Azerbaijan have khash.  Khash (written xaş in Azerbaijani) is a traditional winter soup eaten all over the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia. The key ingredients vary from country to country but in the Land of Fire the dish is usually prepared from sheep’s entire head (yes, including brain, eyes and tongue) as well as hooves and stomach, which are boiled overnight and eaten for breakfast. Thanks to its high fat content and the timing of serving (early morning), the dish is said to be a perfect hangover cure.

Preparation

Khash is not a quick dish to prepare. First it is necessary to flame sear the head and hooves, then chop them and mix with the stomach. Afterwards all of this has to be boiled and chilled to remove any possible impurities. Now the real cooking begins! The ingredients are simmered in water with some carrots and onions, usually overnight to separate the meat from the bone and to change the water into a jelly-like liquid. Only then the dish is seasoned with spices, including cinnamon and lemon.  This is, of course, only one of the recipes – some cooks don’t add vegetables at all while others throw in some garlic and hot peppers similar to jalapeno. The soup is usually accompanied by lavash, Azerbaijani thin flat bread, which is often torn into small bits and threw into it.

Serving

Due to the time-consuming preparation followed by hours of cooking, the dish is rarely cooked at home. However, if someone makes the effort to prepare it, it will surely be shared with friends or extended family. Otherwise there are restaurants that specialize in khash and they are often opened at night or in early morning hours. In the past it used to be common to invite guests for khash the morning after the weeding and this tradition prevails in some villages of the country. Typically, khash is consumed by men and accompanied by vodka, which is believed to help digestion.

Anecdotes

As the story goes, sometime in the 1970s the famous Baku-born cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, on the way to a performance in Azerbaijan informed a friend of his that he’ll be arriving from Moscow around 6am. When asked why he chose such an early flight, he replied that he wanted to have a bowl of khash as soon as he gets to the city. And so he did.

Useful links:

A song of sheep-face stew. Road & Kingdoms.

His majesty Khash. visions of Azerbaijan. 

Khash recipe. News.az

Autumn in Azerbaijan – the pomegranate extravaganza

pomegranate

Pomegranate. Image by Loursed von Kruss (pinterest)

Pomegranate in the local culture

Pomegranate, a slightly tart fruit with a pulp of a characteristic deep red colour, has been the essential element of Azerbaijani culture for centuries. Medieval paintings from the area show an abundance and variety of the fruit, or nar as it’s known locally, on the tables of the local elite. Today there are over 70 types of pomegranates cultivated in Azerbaijan and the fruit has become a key ingredient of many traditional local dishes.

Drink

According to ancient historical records, pomegranate was used in the region as a wine ingredient. The particular wine called nabiz was a thick and very sweet liquid that had to be mixed with water in order to make it more agreeable. With time nabiz was replaced with conventional wines made of grapes but pomegranate is still used to prepare non-alcoholic beverage such as sherbet, a fresh, cooling drink made of pomegranate (or other fruit), water and sugar. Pure pomegranate juice produced locally is also very popular.

sherbet

Pomegranate sherbet.

Food

Pomegranate is added  to some of the most popular Azerbaijani dishes. Dry seeds are often used as a substitute for nuts in fish or chicken levengi (stuffed fish/chicken) while fresh seeds are added to plov, govurma, braised lamb and chicken, or sprinkled over salads and various appetizers.

Healing properties

Pomegranate is also known for its healing properties. People frequently use the peel of the fruit as a remedy for dyspepsia and indigestion. The shell – either fresh or dried – is boiled in water and sipped throughout the day. The pomegranate juice is used as well in a treatment of diabetes and anemia. Interestingly, in ancient times the Zoroastrians living in the territory of today’s Azerbaijan mixed pomegranate and its leaves together with water and ephedra to make a medicinal drink called haoma. Click the link for more information.

Pomegranate Festival

festival

Pomegranate Festival in Goychay. Image by azcookbook.com

Pomegranates are grown all over the country but those from Goychay, a central region of Azerbaijan, are considered to be the best, Every year during the harvest, which usually takes place in October, local people organize the Pomegranate Festival to celebrate the fruit. Visitors at the festival can try local dishes prepared with the pomegranate and admire a parade with traditional dances and Azerbaijani music. There are also several competitions, such as the biggest pomegranate or pomegranate eating competition.

Useful links:

Visions of Azerbaijan: In praise of the pomegranate

Haoma, ancient healing

Pop the kettle on – tea drinking tradition in Azerbaijan

As the popular local saying goes –  “Çay nədir, say nədir”, which can be translated as ”when you drink tea you don’t count the cups”. Chai, as the beverage is called locally, is an essential part of Azerbaijani culture and no social event can do without a few cups of a fresh brew.

tea

Tea accompanied by typical Azerbaijani sweets – pahlava and shekerbura. Source: Steve@ynfah at pinterest.

How to have it

Tea is usually drunk hot in pear-shaped glasses and can be topped up with a slice of lemon  or a sugar lump, never with milk. Interestingly, you will often see people putting a sugar cube into their mouth and sipping tea through it. Apparently, this habit has its roots in the middle ages when rulers, afraid to be poisoned by their enemies, believed that any malicious substances will react to sugar. Tea is very often mixed with thyme, mint or rose-water and accompanied by jams (varene), cookies, candies or dry fruit.

azer170

Tea is drunk in Azerbaijan anytime and anywhere. A few tables set up in the forest and a samovar make a field ”chaikhana” (teahouse). Khanbulan Lake, Lankaran region. Source: azerb.net

Tea plantations

Chai in Azerbaijan is not only drunk in copious quantities but also cultivated.

tea plantation

Tea plantation in Lankaran region. Source: Kids Britannica

The beverage has been enjoyed in the country for centuries but the idea of tea growing was first raised only in 1880s, when some of the local farmers realized that the combination of warm and humid climate, the Caspian Sea, rich vegetation and the Talysh mountains create favorable conditions  for cultivation. The development of tea industry on a full-blown scale began in late 1930s. Over the following years tea growing had been continuously intensified and improved. Unfortunately, the socio-political events that took place in 1988-1994 resulted in a major slowdown of the industry. However, recently the efforts have been made to revive the large-scale tea production in the country. Today tea is produced mainly in the south-eastern regions of the country including the districts of  Lankaran, Astara, Lerik, Masalli, Yardimli and Jalilabad.

Where to drink tea in Baku

All over the city you will find lots of places serving quality tea. The most atmospheric ones are located in the Old Town, and among them are Kishmish Club and Qiz Qalasi Tea House. The first one is located in a basement on Kichik Qala Street and serves tea accompanied by dry fruit and nuts (kishmish means raisin).

Baku_Drink_Kishmish_1

Kishmish Baku. Source: Hg2 Baku

The latter one is situated in a lovely garden just next to the Maiden Tower (Qiz Qalasi). Worth visiting especially in the summer time.

qiz qalasi

Source: thetravelmanor.com

Useful links:

The flavours of Azerbaijan

Tea growing in Azerbaijan: the present and prospects by Visions of Azerbaijan.

Ancient traditions of tea drinking in Azerbaijan. Trend.az

Food and drink in Azerbaijan World Travel Guide

Unknown Azerbaijan…Tea at Sheki Blog

Qabala Jam Festival

Expat Edna – How to drink tea with jam in Azerbaijan

Eating Baku – a guide to the city’s best restaurants

Whether you travel on a budget or have got some extra cash to splash, below you will find a brief introduction to the best of Baku’s restaurants. This is just a short list, which will be updated and expanded in the future to ensure you always get the ultimate dining experience.

BUDGET

Araz –  one of these places where even a tourist will feel like a local. Araz cafe is very popular with young foreigners, especially with the ”hippy” expats or travelers on a tighter budget. It offers a good choice of both Azeri and international foods, decent wine and beer. Recommended whether you just want to drink some tea or spend a few hours sipping beer with friends. Great location for every weather but especially pleasant in the summer when you can sit in the garden overlooking the Fountain Square. Open 24/7.

Darya Fish House – this large restaurant is situated in the fishing village just of the Bibi Heybat Mosque. You can eat here a well prepared local fish accompanied by traditional Azerbaijani starters while looking over the Caspian Sea. Tasty and cheap.

Imereti – arguably the best Georgian restaurant in Baku. It offers a great choice of typical Georgian food, and decent wine too.  On hg2 Baku you will find the old address but the restaurant was moved to 6 Rasul Rza a while ago.

imereti

Cabbage with nuts by Imereti FB

Cudo Pecka – a chain of bakeries located around the city offering a variety of sweet and savoury Azeri pastries including pahlava and qutabs. There’s one in Azerbaijan Avenue, very close to the entrance to the Old Town, and another next to Nizami metro station.

In Baku you will find as well lots of shaurma places where you can eat for about 2AZN, well 3AZN if you top it up with ayran. Also, there are plenty of places offering local delicacies such as meat and vegetable qutabs or pirazhki filled with potatoes, which are sold for about 20-30 kapik/piece. Family bakeries often sell as well pastries resembling Georgian khachapuri. Look for those in the back streets of Targova (there’s, for example, a small bakery on Rasul Rza Street; follow the street up north moving away from Targova).

qutabs

Qutabs. Source: flavorsofbaku.com

MEDIUM

Tosca Cafe & Enoteca – one of the most popular Italian restaurants in Baku. Tasty Italian food in the beautiful setting of the Baku Boulevard.

Sultan Inn – there are a couple of them in Baku but try the one in the Old Town, located on top of the Sultan Inn boutique hotel – it has a little terrace overlooking the Caspian Sea. Very good Azeri food and wine.

Sumakh – located a bit further away from the city center but definitely worth the extra effort – excellent Azeri food in a modern interior.

sumakh restaurant yenimemar.az

Sumakh restaurant

Fayton – Great choice of traditional Azeri dishes. Interesting, slightly elegant but very warm and cozy interior with lots of traditional objects including music instruments, samovars and carpets. Great place for an autumn or winter lunch/dinner. Might get a bit loud when there’s live music.

Sahil – situated one floor above Tosca. Very good Azeri restaurant with beautiful  views over the sea and the boulevard.

STEEP

Kaspia – at the Four Seasons Hotel – delicious grill and sea food from the Caspian Sea and not only.

kaspia

Kaspia, Four Seasons Hotel

Scalini – situated in front of the Hyatt hotel, Scalini offers a good choice of Italian dishes, including fresh pasta, decent pizza and… octopus carpaccio – to name a few. In the adjacent building there’s Scalini Lounge where, for a change, you can stop for the English fry up or Yorkshire pie.

Chinar – a very fancy place next to Baku’s Funicular. They serve Asian cuisine (Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Singaporean) and offer a great choice of cocktails, also non-alcoholic. On the weekends it’s advisable to book in advance. On Friday and Saturday evenings there’s usually a DJ playing electronic lounge music.

Chinar baku3d.az

Chinar by baku3d.az

OroNero – this restaurant, located in the Marriott Absheron hotel, offers tasty modern Italian food. We recommend to choose a table on the spacious terrace overlooking the Boulevard.

Art Garden – good Azeri food in the beautiful setting of the Old Town.

Art Graden

Art Garden, Baku

UNIQUE DINING EXPERIENCE

Mugham Club – called by the Hg2 Baku  ”one of the world’s most atmospheric restaurants”. The restaurant is situated in a two storey caravanserai in the Old Town and offers a unique dining with live Azeri music and dances.  A truly beautiful interior.

Mugham Club by hg2 Baku

Mugham Club by hg2 Baku

The flavors of Azerbaijan

 

The cuisine of Azerbaijan reflects centuries of various political and economic influences in the country – Iranian, Turkish, Central Asian and Soviet – which shaped the unique flavor of the local dishes. The particular topography and climate of Azerbaijan, with 9 out of 11 climate zones from subtropical to mountainous tundra, has also a major effect on the diversity and abundance of fruit, vegetables, pulses, herbs and spices the Azerbaijani cuisine is so rich in. Below you will find some information about the most popular Azeri dishes, but this is only a drop in the ocean of flavors and aromas in the country – for more, you will have to visit!

FOOD

Pilaf, or plov as it is called in Azerbaijan, is a dish of the country’s Persian past. Although there are over 40 types of plov in Azerbaijan, it usually consists of three main ingredients: rice, gara (fried meat, dried fruit, fish or egg) and aromatic herbs including saffron. During Russian times, the rice cultivation in Azerbaijan disappeared and the dish started to be served only on special occasions. Today however, with the import of rice and reestablishment of rice paddies in the sub-tropical south of the country, plov has made a comeback on Azeri tables.

Photo: Azerbaijan.travel

Photo: Azerbaijan.travel

Dolma is another of Azeri staple foods. There are four main types of dolma served in Azerbaijan – badimgan dolmasi (stuffed aubergine), bibar dolmasi (stuffed pepper), tomato dolma, and yarpag dolmasi (stuffed vine leaves). Interestingly, in some regions there is also quince dolma. The main ingredients are usually mutton, veal or beef, white onion, rice and herbs such as coriander, rice, mint and dill. Once the vegetables are stuffed they are left to simmer for a few hours. The tomato, pepper and aubergine dolma are usually served together.  The meal is always accompanied by cold qatiq (yogurt) and minced garlic.

Dolma photo: news.az

Dolma photo: news.az

Thanks to the Caspian Sea and abundance of lakes and rivers Azerbaijani cuisine is also rich in fish dishes, of which the most popular is Baliq Levengi – baked fish with traditional walnut filling, often served on special occasions such as Novruz, the Persian New Year celebrations in March. The filling is made of walnuts, onions, and paste from sour plums (sometimes replaced with fresh pomegranate seeds). Another way of cooking fish is by frying and serving it with narsharab, a thick, brown, slightly acidic pomegranate sauce.

A tour of Azerbaijan’s cuisine couldn’t be completed without a kebab. The streets are full of Turkish doner kiosks but for the real thing you need to go to a good local restaurant. Shashliks are prepared from ground lamb, beef, chicken, vegetables or sturgeon. Meat kebabs are always sprinkled with thinly sliced raw onions and sumac, a traditional Azeri spice of reddish-purple color and lemony taste, and wrapped in paper-thin flatbread, lavash.

WINE

When thinking about Azerbaijan, wine is probably one of the last things that come to mind, but this alcoholic drink has always been an integral part of the country’s history. The beginning of the wine production in the area is estimated at 2000BC, which makes it one of the first wine-producing countries in the world. Over the centuries more than 450 types of grapes have been cultivated in Azerbaijan, many of them autochthonous. Unfortunately, in the Soviet era the wine production  in Azerbaijan had gone through difficult times – not only the quality of the drink had greatly deteriorated, but also many of the vineyards were destroyed during Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, the Armenian occupation of 20% of the country, and the economic and political disorders in the early 1990s. Luckily these days are long gone, and now a group of viticulture enthusiasts is trying to revive the wine tradition in the country. There is a large wine growing in the north of Azerbaijan, especially in the regions of Ganja, Shamaki and Gabala, however some 20km away from Baku, in the Fireland vineyard, you will find excellent wines that will satisfy even the most demanding taste. To ensure the quality today’s wine growers use state-of-the-art equipment from France and Italy. Currently there are more than 20 grapes grown in Azerbaijan among them Chardonnay, Viogner, Pinot Noir, Rkatsiteli and Saperavi. The locally produced wines are an excellent match for the local foods  – Saperavi for lule kebab and Viognier for chicken and local fish dishes.

wine news.az

wine news.az

TEA & SWEETS

pakhlava

Tea and sweets are served in Azerbaijan for any occasion – whether you’re visiting friends or waiting for a business meeting you will certainly be offered a cup of chai that is usually drunk in a pear-shaped glass, armud, which helps retain heat. Tea is always served after the meal, and asking for a ‘cup’ before eating might stir a bit of controversy! The experience wouldn’t be quite the same without something sweet, so tea is usually accompanied by varenye, a very sweet preserve containing whole fruit. Apart from traditional flavors, such as cherry, fig or strawberry, you will find as well watermelon, olive, tomato or nut. The most popular local sweet is pahlava, a diamond-shaped pastry with layers of nuts, and halva. There are two types of halva in Azerbaijan – one is a moist, liquidy sweet made from butter, sugar and flour while the other is solid and prepared from nuts or sesame seeds.

regionplus.az

This is just a tiny sample of what you can expect from Azeri cuisine – there are also 30 types of soups, a wide variety of bread, dumplings, turnovers, meat and vegetable dishes, cheese and more. The country’s cuisine has evolved a lot over the last 100 years due to the Soviet influence and today along the old style traditional Azeri foods you will find Russian stuffed cabbage (dolme kalam), stolichnaya salad (shredded chicken, carrots, potatoes, peas, and mayonnaise), vinaigrette salad or cakes, which are served during birthday celebrations or at parties instead of/along with pahlava.  We hope this little tour of Azerbaijan’s cuisine has aroused some appetite to find out more and you will join us for a journey of discovery of local flavors.

See these links for more information and recipes:

http://azerbaijan24.com/component/content/article/48.html

http://azerbaijan.travel/en/cusine-main/116

http://www.azcookbook.com/

http://www.news.az/recipes

http://flavorsofbaku.com/about/

Uncornered Market – Exploring Azerbaijani Cuisine